Thursday, January 21, 2016

Real World Magic

So much research went into The Seer, from weapons to central heating, from shoe-making to the arcana of various magic systems.

Magic. Some people will tell you that we don't have magic here, in this world, the one in which my book is published, the one with lattes and doctor appointments. But let me tell you what I saw the other day.

I'm at my doctor's office, at lunchtime, finishing up an appointment. I show off my ARC -- that's the Advance Reader Copy, also known as an uncorrected proof -- to a woman behind the reception desk. Let's call her Ann.

Ann is delighted. She says she must, right this moment, now that it's her lunch break, start my book. I have to take my ARC with me, so I direct her to my publisher's website where the first ten chapters are available for free. She starts reading on her computer, as I stand there.

She laughs. I'm hoping that's a good thing, since it's not exactly comedy, chapter one. She glances at me, then back to the book.

"I like this," she says.

"I'm glad," I answer. I'm a little stunned at this suddenness, this enthusiasm, but very pleased. I'm a writer, of course I'm pleased. I gather my things to go.

"Oh," she breathes, reading on. "Just my kind of book!" Again, she sends a grinning look my way.

"Thanks," I say.

I turn to leave. I pause. I turn back.

She's still reading.

I've never seen this before, a near-stranger reading my book with this immediacy and gusto. Surely, I think to myself, she'd rather read it without someone watching her, let alone the author. I mutter something polite, something about leaving, hoping she'll say goodbye or wave or some other indicator that she's done with me.

Aloud she wonders what will happen next.

A reader wants to know what will happen next. These are the words writers live for.

Right in front of me, my world and characters are taking shape in the mind and heart of another human being. There is no sensible reason for me to stay here and watch, but I can't seem to make my feet move.

Minutes pass.

More minutes pass.

"Well," I say. "Guess I'd better go."

She cackles at some action in the story. My story. The one I wrote.

"Yes, I'll just --" I say, as if I'm just coming to this idea. I'll just what? "-- just get on with the day," My words are undercut by how stationary I seem to be.

See, she's reading. My book.

I feel foolish, standing there, but also I feel something else I can't quite name. In another moment it comes to me: I am awestruck. Spellbound. I want to pull out my phone and take a picture to mark this moment, but of course I don't, because it would break the spell.

When at last I summon the will to leave, it's been over fifteen minutes of me standing there, watching Ann -- still smiling and chuckling -- read my book. This is a magic I have never before had the privilege to witness, to see a new reader step into my world.

I give myself another moment to take it in. This moment. This magic.

Finally I go to the door, my eyes misty and my smile wide. I glance back before I leave.

She doesn't look up.

She's reading.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Manuscript Launched

I've just sent back the manuscript for The Seer, after reviewing all 695 pages of edits and questions.


I've had my works edited for publication before, but that experience was nothing like this - not this large a work, nor reviewed in this level of detail. It arrived bristling with post-its, issues I needed to resolve with minimal changes. I had never seen anything like it, and it turned out I had no idea what I was in for.

Sure, going over every word and note was hard. At times wrenching. I laughed. I ranted. (No, not at my editors. If there was any target, it was me). Sometimes the process was really unpleasant. Sometimes it was exhilarating.

And yes, I'm very glad to be done. But here's the thing I didn't expected to be telling you now:

It was an amazing experience. I'm a better writer now than I was three weeks ago.

Why? Line by line, I got to see my work through my editors' eyes. I saw my mistakes highlighted. Some issues that I thought were settled I had to readdress, like why some people's titles are capitalized where others aren't. I spent a lot of time with the Chicago Manual of Style, re-reading other fantasy authors, discussing the nuances of language with others similarly obsessed. I found answers. I learned.

It was a crash course in what's good and what's weak in my writing, applied by the deft (and merciless) hands of two professional editors, both of whom want the same thing I do, for the novel to be the best it can possibly be. No one was concerned about my feelings at this point, nor should they have been; this was where all our non-trivial efforts came together to produce one final thing:

The story.

Prior to this, I would have thought this part of the process would at best teach me about narrative and flow. Commas maybe. Continuity, perhaps. But no - it was far more than that. This process gave me a view onto my novel that I had never had before. It underscored for me the point of all those words: to build a captivating world, characters who come alive, action that's vivid and meaningful.

Of course the work remains imperfect. I managed to accept that no matter how many times I went through it, mistakes were going to slip by. There is no absolute control over a work of this size.

Nor, perhaps, does there need to be. Because the important thing, again, is the story.

When I shipped the book back to the publisher, I felt the sorrow and elation of something ending and another thing beginning. It's out of my hands, now. I've done everything I know how to do to make the story ring like a bell.

Not quite mine any more, this world. Soon it will belong to my readers.

That's going to be a fine day.


Chapter one is here.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lucky to be Alive

An acquaintance of mine was driving on the freeway. His lady friend sat in the passenger seat. She was doing something with her phone. It wasn't working. He glanced over to see if he could help.

Then he looked back at the road.

To avoid rear-ending the car in front of him, he braked and swerved. His car flipped onto its back. On the freeway.

The car was totaled, but he and his passenger -- lucky as heck, I'm sure you'll agree -- walked away, with only minor bruises.

"It changed the way I drive," he told me. "I will never, ever do that again." Astonishment came over his face. "I only looked away for a split second."

A split second.

He got lucky. But you might not. If you haven't already, please: make up your mind, right now, not to look at a phone while you're driving a car. Not ever.

Not even a little.

Not even once.

It's not worth dying over.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Not Long Enough to Forget How You Swung from the Crystals Above

I took a number of runs at this post. I fell back again and again. A steep incline, this is. Slippery underfoot.

Damn it, what do I want to say?

Jay Lake was my friend. I miss him. A lot.

Recently I was telling someone who had never met Jay a bit about him. He responded that he hoped that when he died someone idolized him so much.

Oh, hardly that. I loved Jay, yes, blind spots, foibles, and all. But he would never have claimed to be a flawless creature. Like most of us, he was a mix of keen self-awareness and fuzzy-sighted clumsiness.

Send 1st class
How human he was. How grand.

Art. Jay Lake was art.

Art? Do I mean I can't describe him but I know him when I see him?

Yes, I think I might indeed mean that. But I also mean this: few of those who knew him didn't have a reaction - positive, negative, or both at once. Like art, he inspired people to feel things, to do things. To write, to engage. To talk.

Across the years the two of us discussed all sorts of things. Consciousness and transformation. Science and language. Sex and lust. Cancer and death. Courage and fear.


That last year, many of my emails to him were titled: "Things I will have wished I'd said..." I didn't want to leave anything unsaid. Mostly it was, simply: "I love you."
Riding Genre as far as it will go

He inspired me, Jay did. He was unapologetic for who and what he was. He was happy to talk about it, sure, even listen if you had something to say, but he had worked hard to get where he was, and I don't mean his writing - which yes he also worked hard at - but the person-hood he inhabited. He wasn't at all sorry for his opinions, his volume, his language, his brightly colored shirts and socks.

Even before cancer, Jay was busy living his life as if he didn't have a moment to waste, grabbing at every ring he could see, swinging from any chandeliers that would have him.

I remember being an early reader on LAST PLANE TO HEAVEN and SUNSPIN, sitting on his couch one afternoon while nearby Jay's fingers danced across the keyboard of his laptop. Now and then I'd make an amused sound and he'd stop and look at me questioningly. I'd point out something I found interesting in his narrative. A word I didn't know. Structural choices he'd made.

Aha! I have you now!
Somewhere it hit me, just how good a writer he had become. I said as much, adding that I couldn't imagine ever writing as well as he did.

His response was abrupt and adamant: "Don't try to write like me. Write like you."

It was a point he made again and again, to me, to others. While he loved being in the spotlight and giving voice to his views, always, always, when it came to specifics, to me and my dreams, he pushed me to reach for whatever it was that called to me, rather than to follow someone else.

To lurch for the rings. To swing from the chandeliers. To wear bright shirts and socks.

Remember, the best way to learn is through failure. Success is a much less effective teacher. But if you’re going to fail, fail big. Petty failures teach petty lessons. Write the Big Idea stories, the grand, sweeping novels. Open your mouth and shout. Be great. Pretty damned good is the failure condition of greatness. -- Jay Lake, on Motivation

Jay moved me.

Jay was art.

I miss him.

Remember the caption contests?

Speaking of the Art of Jay Lake, here's another view onto the man I want you to know about:

"The Jay Wake Book: A Celebration of Jay Lake", absolutely free and in full color:

PDF Low Resolution (small file size 7MB)

PDF High Resolution (72MB)

HARDCOPY: This POD book is splendid, with quality full-color prints. (The cost of $28.22 covers only the production costs of the book, courtesy of editors and contributors, myself included.)

I love you
(My gratitude to editor Sandra Tayler​ and all contributors to the book.)

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What is Story?

Lately I've become obsessed with a question. It is, more or less, this: What is story?

I know some stuff about story. My stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, I have a YA fantasy book that many readers like, and my new fantasy novel is coming out next spring from Baen Books. I know a good story when I've read it. Or written it.

But what is it, at essence? There's something there that I can almost taste, but can't quite get my hands around. Something at the fundament of the concept of story, that crosses all forms, from flash to epic, from song to movie, from Saturday morning cartoons to Shakespeare's sonnets.

What is story? What would I see if I held its beating heart in my hand?

I re-read my writing books, sucking marrow from the words of those who ought to know. I put the question to the internet. I ask everyone who will stand still long enough.

Story, a number of writerly friends inform me, is when a character, with a challenge, after struggling and failing, finally solves (or fails to solve) said challenge. Stuff happens, see. People change. Situations get resolved. Beginning, middle, end. Tension. Resolution. Resonance.

Well, yes. That's plot structure - or some kinds of plot structures, anyway. But I could write a story that fits all that just fine and still brings you to yawns. (Yes, I'm that good.) If it's boring, it's not a story for you. So what makes a story come alive?

It's about character, someone tells me. Intriguing characters who draw you into a greater meaning.

Yes, again. None of this is untrue, but in a sense these are only tools. What about Story with a capital "S"? I'm still hunting for the essence of the beast itself. I'll know it when I hold it in my hand, gooey and throbbing.

"Story..." says Ursula K. Le Guin, in one of her essays, "is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories."

That all societies use story seems an important clue to my hunt. That it's a tool to understanding -- another clue. I can sense the answer out there.

In another article she says:

"The very quality of story is to hold, to fascinate."

I can feel myself inching closer.

Casting about for answers on the net, this quote catches my eye:

"What is a story? A structured way of looking at reality. A way that works for us because it matches the way our brains work. Reality, in its raw, unfiltered, and ugly state, is chaotic. But we are not very good at dealing with chaos. Hence, we impose structures on our experiences of reality in order to make sense of it. We impose stories."

Making sense of reality. I hear a distant bell. I'm closer.

Some friends question the intensity of my obsession. "Why do you need to know how the sausage is made? Isn't it enough that you can make it?"

It sure isn't. I need to understand not just sausage, but Sausage.

Finding another analogy wouldn't hurt, either.

Ever played with a kitten and a string? Even better -- tie a ball of crinkly paper to the end. You tug and the kitten follows, utterly fascinated. Maybe it pounces, making adorable mock-killing motions. After a while, kitten might tire just a bit, and sit back on its haunches, and look around to see if there's another crinkly ball lurking in the neighborhood.

Want kitten's rapt attention back? Draw the crinkly ball behind a corner, just out of sight. Somewhere not visible but clearly in reach. Kitten is unable to resist following. Perhaps it's genetic wiring for the mouse that has just slipped into a shallow hole. Kitten will follow. Kitten has no choice.

As I see it, this is Story. Kitten Story.

What is the human equivalent? When we are deeply intrigued by a tale, what makes us so? When we are moved to tears, what has done this? How does a story become irresistible? What makes us care so much, makes us so happy when it's completed well?

I know the answer varies from person to person, from culture to culture, and across genres. But I believe there's something at the heart of all stories that draws our attention relentlessly forward, that leads our ravenously curious minds around. As if we were kittens chasing crinkly paper balls. That thing we are genetically unable to resist.

Another writer friend says this: "Stories are ways to live without living. To experience significant things without all the troubles of actually being there. Living takes time and resources; If you can live a dozen years around a campfire in one night, there's value there. Useful experience on the cheap."

Stories can teach us how to live, so we don't have to try to live all those lives ourselves.

I can smell it now, the answer. It's pungent. I'm so close.

I score a chance to talk about plot with an award-winning story author, and at one point in the conversation he's on about characters who face challenges that keep getting worse, about how they slam up against a dilemma with obvious resolutions, but the ideal story solves the dilemma in a non-obvious way, and then...

...and then...

The bell rings. I have it. My answer.

I'm bouncing up and down, saying "that's it! that's it!" and my friend is gently trying to tell me that while it might be a profound insight for me, it's not necessarily going to seem like a big deal to everyone else. But I don't care -- I have my answer -- I have the beating heart of Story, right in my hand.

It's not complicated. In fact, it's deliciously simple.

Oh, you want it, too? Here it is.

Our minds are built for making sense out of the world, and making sense is, at its core, about solving puzzles. So when someone starts solving puzzles and unwinding mysteries in front of us, we notice fast. If the puzzle or mystery happens to be similar to something we've tried to solve ourselves, successfully or not, we become intrigued. Stories that work for us intrigue us because they solve mysteries we care about.

Now, I use the words "puzzle" and "mystery" loosely here. A social challenge. How power is wielded. Dealing with death. Exploring new lands. Surviving hardship. Finding love. Making community. Having children. Living in peace. The nature of consciousness. What we want. What we fear. All this and more.

Story is puzzle solving, done well.

I start to see how the canonical rules of storytelling fall naturally out of this principle. Why is it so important we identify with the character? Because if the character isn't enough like us, we can't follow the pattern to the solution. Why the escalating challenges? To show that the character is dealing with a non-trivial problem, one worth solving. Why must the character transform? Because they can't solve the problem at the story's start and at the conclusion they can, so the problem changed, the character changed, or it's a lousy story. To see how we might follow in their path, the change must be evident. Why an unexpected solution? Because we already know the expected and obvious ones. I could go on.

As humans, we are keenly aware when anyone tells us they've untangled a knot. It intrigues us at a very deep level. When Story draws us forward irresistibly, it is offering to solve a mystery for us.

When it delivers, it gives us great satisfaction, because that's how we and our clever minds are put together.

So I've solved my mystery. The crinkly ball is mine.

Friday, May 1, 2015

May Day, Map Day

Return the map! It will bring you great danger.

The map is not the story, but if your characters leave the house and wander around at all, you'll need a map. You can have it before you begin, or you can draw it as you go, but you need a sense of location or you'll get lost, and no one likes it when the author -- the tour guide, after all -- can't find their way around.

My maps are minimal. High Fantasy has a history of being extravagant with unnecessary details, and I resist that -- I tend to follow the maxim "Cut out all the parts that aren't interesting" (Ray Vukcevich, to Jay Lake, as related here)

So, yes, I have my maps. Right by my computer so I can see where the action is happening and where my people are going. Check that it all makes sense.

Still, somehow, it didn't occur to me that the reader might also like to know where the action was happening and where the characters were going. So I was surprised when my editor said, "we'll need your map, of course."

Need my map? But... but... I'm not a map person. I just have these sketches...

No problem, my editor says, we have a guy for that.

I do a little research on their guy and I'm suitably impressed; he's discussed with reverence and awe. His job is to take my map and make it look good. I provide the raw materials and he makes it sparkle and shine.

I slowly exhale. I don't have to worry about the map after all.

Well, wait -- I have to give him something, and it has to be correct. I take a closer look at the sketch I'm planning to send him, and I realize some of the details are, ahem, not quite right.

Oh, not the book -- the narrative itself is flawless, as to places and directions. Ahem. But primarily it's my map that needs fixing. Provinces where they should be. Villages and cities moved to the right -- if general -- location. Major rivers inserted. Show the Great Road. Things that if you're going to bother with a map at all, need to be present and correct enough to elucidate rather than befuddle.

Here we go into the warm part of the year. The well-lit part of the year. Good light by which to draw.

Map Day.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Seer: Signed, Sealed, Delivered

I've been waiting until today to tell you what happened two weeks ago. Before I do that, let's back up a bit.

Early last year Baen Books told me that, yes, they were interested in my novel, The Seer, but that they wanted changes. Big changes. In a long conversation, they outlined the revisions they wanted. Totally understand, they said, if you'd rather not.

Thing was, they were right. The editors had, essentially, called me out on all my short-cuts, weak characterizations, arcs that needed to go farther, an ending that needed more closure.

Yeah, I said: count me in. I'm in. All in.

Then I went to work. The revisions they wanted were huge -- plot-changing, character wrenching -- and in many cases they did not play nicely with each other. I realized that I needed to find new ways to tell a story that was fast becoming more complicated than anything I had laid hands on before. Bluntly, this story was going to require a better writer than I was to finish it. Somehow, I had to become that better writer.

I wish I could tell you it all blossomed in magic born of necessity, and there were some rare times when the words just flowed and it felt like some kind of magic, but most of the time it was me just reviewing plot-lines, checking maps, consulting my experts, and putting one finger in front of the other to write what too often felt like the clumsiest prose I'd ever fashioned.

I took out a lot of words. All the way through and in the final rewrites. My outtakes file is about half the size of the final manuscript, and that isn't short. (Though, I hasten to add, shorter than Game of Thrones. Ha!)

But most of the time what got me through the current scene or chapter was something akin to terror: I had signed a contract -- I had taken real money -- I had a deadline. Sure, I could quit, but then I'd have to flee the country and live in shame under an assumed name for the rest of my life.

There were moments where that seemed the better option.

I lined up some powerful allies. First readers. Friends. Experts. Advisers. My Muse. My Reader Advocate. (I'll explain later.) I warned them all that there would be times when I would loose faith in my ability, and that their job was to get me to the finish line. And they did. Wow, did they. More on that in another post.

As a writer I took a lot of risks with this book, with the story-line, characters, tensions, symbol choices, and so on -- things I hope my reader never notices consciously. I had no idea if the publisher would like what I'd done.

Sometimes I would lie there trying to sleep and think about all the risky things I'd done that they could object to, all the strange twists and turns I'd made, all the ways in which I'd incorporated the changes they wanted, but gone a fair bit beyond what might have been enough, all in order to tell the story that needed to be told.

In the last two months before the deadline, it came to me -- in my gut, not intellectually -- that I had to write the story the best I possibly could -- so that, if the publisher did not like it after all, I would know, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that it wasn't because I'd held back.

I didn't hold back.

Then, the last day of March -- two weeks ago -- I shipped it. That's what I wanted to tell you.

I was surprisingly calm about it. I had, after all, given it everything I had. If it wasn't good enough, well, so be it; I knew I hadn't taken any shortcuts.

Today my editor at Baen wrote me back. He said he'd finished the book. The fixes he wants are minor.

He called it wonderful. He called it excellent. He said I'd made all the changes he'd hoped for and more. He said he was proud to be publishing it.

Me, too. Very much so. The Seer is scheduled to hit ink in spring of 2016.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Everything of Life

I don't usually write about food (with "Chef's Surprise" as a notable exception) but this I had to share.

Low carbing? Gluten-free?

Bet you miss bagels, don't you.

It's the everything you really miss.

Whatever the reason you've decided baked goods just aren't worth the downside, I'm with you. But gods, I miss the everything.

You, too?

Sometimes these inspirations come from the sky. Me, I was walking by a bakery.

I have a solution. Not the perfect solution, but remember: the perfect is the enemy of the just-darned-good-enough. This is good enough and then some.

Just fry up some cheese. Add the everything mix. Brown slightly.

Pretty simple stuff, the everything: salt, poppy and sesame seeds, dried unions and/or garlic. Which you can make, buy on-line, or do what I did: walk into the bakery and ask for some. They might double-take, but if you have money, they'll hand it over.

Then fry up your favorite cheese, baked, with some everything on it. It's so good you will be tempted to send me fan mail.  (Please do.)

Because yum. Because everything.

It's everything you ever wanted

Saturday, September 27, 2014

How Facebook ate my blog and what I'm going to do about it

Facebook ate my blog
I don't blog here as much as I used to. I blame Facebook.

Why? It's easier to whip up a quick-and-dirty witty comment there than a reasoned and thoughtful post, here.  A lower bar to hit. I don't have to be as detailed, as nuanced. Full sentences not required. No one cares about my typos.

I appreciate responses. Far more likely to get them on the old FB feed.

Maybe even generate some back and forth. More like casual conversation between humans rather than a high-school essay. Gathering around the water hole.

Can you believe what the giraffes are on about?

The elephants are sure making noise tonight. Not much signal, though.

What, again? Will these idiot birds ever learn how things really work?

And then there's micro-reward of the LIKE. A touch of sweet dopamine. Food for the social animal, even the most anti-social among us.

I tell myself I'm not happy about all this. That my blog needs me. That I'm not going to take it any more. Going to do something about it.

So I write this post.

But if I want a response I'd better mention it there. Even if the theme of Facebook distracting humans from the more important things in life (like blogging?) is well past its sell-by date, someone there will agree with my sentiments.

Oh yes, they will.

Just watch my feed and see.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Things Jay Lake Told Me

We lost Jay Lake on June 1st. A lot of us, as it turns out. And yet we each lost our own personal Jay. Not quite the same critter as the next missing-Jay sufferer.

Me, I lost a friend who gave me some things no one else ever had, who held my hands and my confidences gently.

A lot has been said about him in the time since, but a few things haven't been said yet and I'd like to say them.

Jay believed in love, yes. But he also believed in touch and sex and adamantly and passionately believed that there was nothing wrong with either.

One day when he was visiting me, I turned on the tape recorder and got him going on various subjects, which wasn't hard to do.

Jay liked to talk. It was one of the many things he did well.

About people and how to treat them:

"Way too many people don't get listened to, or experience kindness, or touch. If you pay attention and you're nice about it and you gently offer touch, it's amazing how people respond."

About sex and death:

"We are put on this earth to do two things: fuck off and die.

"We fuck off to make more of ourselves, and we die to get out of their way. Since we only get to die once, we may as well work on the fucking-off as much as we can."

I laughed at this. He smiled and added, "I'm saying that funny, but I really do believe it."

And he did. Among the things I learned from Jay was that there are lots of ways to do sex.

Now that he's gone, I realize he also showed me there are a lot of ways to die. His way was to leave it all on the table.

Or to take it all off the table.

"Two of the greatest things in life are sex and food. Sensory input. I approach them similarly."

Sensuality. The stuff of life. He wanted it all.

The morning Jay died I went into a cafe and got myself a large cup of whipped cream. I drank it to his memory.

One day, many years ago -- pre-cancer -- I was complaining to Jay about something or another in my life.

You do your best, he told me.

No, that's not what he said at all. What he said was this:

"Here’s a twenty sided die, a jar of anchovies, an accordion, and a lug wrench. Good luck."

He meant that we go forward with the tools we have. Maybe not quite the tools we'd hoped for. Maybe not even sufficiently good tools. But they're the tools we've got. So use them, he meant.

The gifts Jay gave me - his love, his insights - are among my best tools.

Along with the twenty-sided die, of course, which I keep handy for those occasions when I'm without a jar of anchovies, an accordion, or a lug wrench.

"The entropy of the universe tends toward the maximum. Our role as human beings is to stand against that tendency."

And he did.

I'd like to think that through those of us who remain, missing him and loving him, he still does.

"Love while you can, live as you must."


Sunday, May 11, 2014

I'm a Grown-up Now

You know how when you go out to a restaurant, the server brings you a warm dish, puts it down in front of you, and says:

"Careful now -- that's hot"?

Let me ask you something. What's the first thing a kid does when you tell them not to touch something?


Also, I don't know what my server means by hot. Frankly, most people are wimps. So I touch it, just to find out how hot.

Typically not very. I like hot. Hot soups, hot drinks. Really hot. Most lattes are lukewarm by my standards. When I'm ordering from a Barista, I say, "make it dangerously hot. Put me at risk." Gets my point across.

So imagine my delight when, last week, a steaming, baked pesto-tomato-egg dish was put in front of me with no warning at all.

Just like that.

I grinned like a fool. I told the servers how delighted I was and thanked them profusely for treating me like an adult. I might have scared them a bit with my enthusiasm.

Oh, and the food was fabulous, too.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Seattle Driver Backs up While Texting

Yes, I recently watched a woman do this. Luckily not from behind her car.

Whether you walk, bike, or drive, you are at risk from those who take their attention off the road to see what's on their phone. For what? A cute cat picture? Something to pick up from the store?

Is it worth a life?

As my regular readers know, I have some strong opinions about using a cell phone while driving that go well beyond "don't."

At highway speeds, in the time it takes you to glance away from the road to look at your phone, even just to see who called, you're covering the length of a football field.

How many bodies is that?

Remember when cigarette smokers claimed they weren't hurting anyone but themselves so they should be able to smoke where and when they liked? Smoking laws arose because enough people decided that it simply wasn't true.

When the cellphone-while-driving body-count gets high enough, maybe we'll decide it isn't true that drivers can safely share that much attention with the road.

In the meantime, while the pile of bodies is still not large enough to get our culture's keen attention on the matter, how do we convince people not to text and drive?

One way is to insist that they do. In 2012, a Brussels Driving Centre required teens to text during a driving test. See what happened here. What would it take to include something like this on the practical part of the drivers' test?

Another way is to use the technology itself. It would be relatively easy to write an app that tracks cell phone motion patterns to determine if someone is driving or not, and then whether they are texting or talking, and report that to their auto-insurance company. Or the police. Anyone working on this? Can I help?

And lastly, social condemnation can move mountains. You know that look you give someone when they light up a cigarette near the picnic table at which you and your family are eating? Do that. Scowl. Shake your head. Wag your finger.

Just be careful and stay out of the direct line from their car to your body. Bad judgment while driving is not limited to cell phone use.

Monday, January 20, 2014

These Newfangled Devices

I remember wrist phones. They were all the rage in science fiction a few decades back, like flying cars and moon bases. Coming soon to a world near you.

I'm keen on user experience issues too. While reading Nielsen Norman Group's review of Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch I have to laugh: "Better not stand next to a Gear user if you don't want a punch in the nose."

Meaning that moving the wrist phone to signal you want an app to launch -- otherwise known as "gesture interface" -- is still a touch buggy.

After I finish laughing, I consider. As a science fiction writer, it's my business to predict the future. Where will this lead? "Swipe ambiguity," as it's called, is going to be a problem for a while, but not forever. Designers are going to incorporate increasingly natural (and custom) gestures as inputs to our various new-fangled devices.

You can argue that our bodies are already our essential interface, but fingers on keyboards are pretty far from what might be considered natural input. What might be more innate?

Speech, of course. Voice recognition that works, reliably. Speak your desires and the computer does it.

What else?

How about you wave your right index finger in the air and chant "return the map!" and your navigation system launches? Or you start walking and your ped-metrics tracker starts up? Or you start humming and music plays, or you start dancing and your dance track launches? Right now your phone can't tell that you're dancing, but that day is coming. Body-reading computers are not far away.

But what about your mind?

Let's say you want to read your email. Take a moment and think about how that feels, right before you move your mouse to open your email. That feeling has a subtle but measurable physical component, and while our home computers and cell phones can't yet detect it, that day, too, is coming.

Power's in the wrist
That is, when you only want to read your email, before you've explicitly indicated anything, your computer will know. Maybe even before you do.

Interesting times in our near futures, my friends.  Hang on to your hat.

Which will probably launch the weather app.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Colorful Gathering

There is a reason that you can't find any used bowling balls in Oregon, and I'm going to tell you what it is.

Under a secluded tree, somewhere in the remote countryside, sit four hundred and thirteen -- wait, no, make that four hundred and fifteen, because she just bought out the local thrift store -- gathered bowling balls. I watch as the artist places the new ones.

It's a very large, very colorful gathering. What, I ask, are they doing here?

"Aging!" she tells me, delightedly.

Except for the ones that are used for Wilderness Bowling, she adds. That's a new sport you've never heard of that, no, I'm not making up. I wish I was.

These balls have to prove they have what it takes before she applies them to the task she envisions. Because, perhaps like many of the rest of us, some will crack under the strain of this wilderness experience. She has to be sure she knows what each one is made of.

And some do crack. She knows exactly what those ones are made of. Rubber and some very hard materials. The cracked ones look like large Easter malted milk balls someone has broken open.

The survivors have to stay intact for a good year -- or two, or three -- as long as it takes for her to collect the rest, and put them all together into -- well. That I can't tell you. Because I don't know.

This I can tell you: she's still looking. Because, she tells me, to compete her vision she still needs, oh, at least another four hundred.

The mind boggles. This one does, anyway.

So if you happen to have extra bowling balls lying around, let me know and I'll put you in touch with the artist. Then you can be a patron of the wilderness arts. Or a contributer to a new sport.

And if you, too, have been searching for used bowling balls and can't find them, at least you have that mystery solved.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Top 10 things you should know about Seattle's 2013 NW Chocolate Festival

You've heard about the NorthWest Chocolate Festival, September 20-22, right? If you like chocolate, you should plan to be there. Go put it on your calendar. Yes, now. I'll wait.

The festival has been expanding impressively these last few years, and is now held at Seattle's Washington State Convention Center. A little planning goes a long way.

Here are my top ten tips for getting the most out of the NW Chocolate Festival:

1. Plan to be there. If you're anywhere near Seattle, do come. It's so worth it. The single day pass price of $30 (advance price) is both a bargain and a steal given what you get: samples of some of the finest chocolate in the world, multiple educational tracks, demonstrations, and performances. And the VIP pass is a great way to make it an exceptional weekend. My advice? Buy your tickets in advance. Either way, keep the weekend open. If like most Seattleites you prefer to keep your options open until the very last minute, that's fine; the at-the-door price will still be a bargain.

2. Expect crowds. Serious crowds. Especially if you go on Saturday. Sunday tends to be less packed. I like people but last year I got overwhelmed by the sheer number of humans around me. Toward the end of Sunday (festival is over at 5pm), everything started to clear out. My advice: if you can't wrap your head around sharing space with thousands of other chocolate lovers and their kids, go early or go late. Chocolate knows no off-hours but if you don't like crowds Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon are your best bets.

3. Getting there is half the battle. Street parking will not be any fun. If you drive, save yourself time and hassle and park in the garage WSCC for about $15 for 6 hours -- cheap if you carpool with your friends, who you know want to go too. Better yet, take a bus, bike, Car2go, or a taxi. Directions and parking info here.

4. Pack healthy snacks. You'll have the chance to sample enough chocolate to make yourself truly sick. Before you know it you'll be craving something healthy like carrot sticks, nuts, or cheese sticks. Yes, there are places outside the festival to eat real food, but if you're like me, you won't want to leave. So bring healthy snacks to tide you over until you can tear yourself away.

5. Pace yourself, both in terms of how fast you walk and how much you sample. I'm not kidding about making yourself sick. And if you have children with you (or adults acting like children) pace them, too -- we can all use help in the face of temptation. Too much dark chocolate -- and most of this will be that, dark, at 70% or better -- can bring you right over the line of your personal theobromine limit. At my first festival weekend I simply didn't sleep and it wasn't the minimal amount of caffeine in chocolate. It was the theobromine.

6. Taste, don't gobble. Take a tiny taste of even the small samples they give you, savor it, try to understand it, and save the rest of the bite for later. That way you won't overwhelm your taste buds as quickly and you won't hit your limit as fast. While everyone comes to the festival for different reasons, if yours include finding out what the big deal about premium chocolate is, what makes it different from what you can buy at a grocery store, you'll want to pay close attention to what your tongue is telling you. Take your time.

7. Bring easy-to-carry tote bags for the chocolate you'll be buying to take home. Most vendors are going to be selling their wares at low festival prices so this is the time to stock up for both your personal chocolate needs and holiday presents. Yes, properly stored bar chocolate will easily last until the holidays and well beyond and you'll want to carry your purchases comfortably through the day. I always bring something I can sling over my shoulder, like a backpack. And I wear comfortable shoes.

8. Bring water. There will be water at the festival, but bring a small container to call your own so you can have it when you like rather than needing to search. I always bring a thermos of hot water -- mild green tea, if you must know -- because chocolate melts at body temperature and it helps me clear my palette between tastings. This year I'll probably bring an even bigger thermos, even though I'll need to carry it around, because I tend to go through it all.

9. Take a good look around. There will be so much to do and learn at the festival that you could be overwhelmed, but instead think of this as a self-directed course in chocolate based on your specific interests. Look at the schedule, see what appeals to you. Watch demos, listen to talks by industry insiders, attend performances that intrigue you, or just walk the floor admiring confections. If you're like me, you'll be impressed at how interesting chocolate is, how it affects humans world-wide, and what the implications of theobroma cacao are for the earth's sustainable ecosystem.

10. Say hello! Talk to the chocolate makers, the chocolatiers, and the educators. Find out what they think the most important issues of the day are with regards to chocolate. Some of the most deeply passionate and knowledgeable people in the world and industry will be there, and they care very much about what you, the end-consumer, knows and understands about chocolate. Don't be intimidated -- just say hello!

Got more questions about the festival? You might find the answers at the  festival facebook page, or this FAQ.

Or drop me a note!